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California Denies Sierra Club Intervention On Large Solar Project

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Artist's conception, Palen Solar Electric Generating System | Photo: BrightSource Energy

The California Energy Commission has turned down a request from the Sierra Club to become a formal legal party to proceedings regarding the proposed Palen Solar Electric Generating System west of Blythe in Riverside County.

The Sierra Club filed to "intervene" in the CEC's Palen proceedings on June 6. "Intervening" is a bit of jargon meaning to become a full legal party to the CEC's quasijudicial proceedings, whose testimony must be given full consideration in any decision. It's a step that gives more influence than members of the public have in the process; more like becoming a party to a lawsuit.

In its decision today denying the Sierra Club's petition, CEC pointed out that the official deadline for intervention in the case passed last September. Ordinarily, that'd be a slam dunk reason to deny the Club's petition. But the Palen case has gone through such a complex set of changes since that deadline, with new information being revealed, that granting the Club status as an intervenor would have been more than justified.

The 500 megawatt Palen project would build two 750-foot solar power towers on 3,800 acres of land southeast of Joshua Tree National Park. Those power towers would be surrounded by tens of thousands of movable mirrors called "heliostats" that would focus solar energy on boilers atop the towers. In the late months of 2013, discussion of Palen's potential environmental impact focused, as it were, on threats to birds and other wildlife from that concentrated solar "flux," especially as reports emerged that Palen's sister facility in the Ivanpah Valley was apparently killing more birds than anyone had anticipated.

Since that September deadline, the CEC released a Presiding Member's Proposed Decision (PMPD) in December that was highly unfavorable to the Palen project's backers, Palen Solar Holdings (PSH) -- a joint venture of BrightSource Energy and Abengoa Solar.

The CEC generally upholds its commissioners' PMPDs, so the recommendation in Palen's PMPD to deny a permit for the power tower design was potentially devastating for PSH. A week and a half later, PSH asked the CEC to suspend hearings on the project until the companies could collect more data on avian mortality. They presented that "more data" in February, mainly consisting of a rudimentary chart of bird mortalities at Ivanpah and two other solar power plants. In that chart, individual bird mortalities were color-coded by cause of death, but the only numbers offered were plant-wide for each of the plants. (If CEC commissioners and staff wanted to know how many birds were killed by solar flux at Ivanpah in December, they'd have to get out a pencil and make check marks in the margins.)

The new data provided by PSH also included a list of bird deterrence mechanisms including radar, drones, dogs, and scarecrows.

The relevance of the new information provided by PSH was marginal at best, with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's official response to the material being "We submit to you that the supplemental documents provided by Palen Solar Holdings do not constitute substantive new information."

Despite that assessment, which was echoed by the CEC's own staff, and over the opposition of a majority of intervenors in the case, the CEC agreed in May to reopen the evidentiary hearing to consider PSH's new evidence.

As it happens, there's also substantial new evidence in the issue of solar flux wildlife mortalities that wasn't included in the packet submitted by PSH in February, namely a grisly forensics report from a federal wildlife lab on avian mortalities at Ivanpah.

In addition to the new evidence on wildlife mortality, the CEC ordered when reopening the evidentiary record that the new hearings consider the new topics of glint and glare, solar flux damage to insects, and heightened use of natural gas by the Palen project (likely based on similar increases at Ivanpah).

That means continued proceedings will be very different from the ones prospective intervenors might have thought they were signing up for in September. While environmental intervenors Basin and Range Watch, the Center For Biological Diversity, and the Colorado River Indian Tribes have given important testimony on solar flux and a whole raft of other issues, and the expertise in those groups is top-notch, the Sierra Club simply has far more resources than the other two groups, and could have brought a new level of expert witnesses to the table.

So it's unfortunate that the CEC decided to deny the Sierra Club's petition. Given the new information that will be discussed, reopening the deadline to intervene would have been a sensible and fair move.

Of course, it may well have been embarrassing to PSH to have a Big Ten Green Group as fully committed to the war on Climate Change as the Sierra Club become a hostile intervenor to their project. One might have concluded that there's something to the criticisms of Palen's benefit to the climate not being worth the damage the project may cause.

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